Tuesday, April 04, 2017

The slow things - 2 months, 1 day.

I am two months and one day into the sabbatical, and I have produced one article and almost two chapters. It's not a bad feat. The challenge is to keep going. I have to produce one more chapter draft, and then start massaging a large text into unity. The first part should be doable, I have almost 2 months to go for that. The second part will take months still.

There is however some kind of progress, even if it does not flow smoothly and confidently. And to celebrate that I want to share my most faithful companion with you. This little creature lives in the garden I see from my windoes, comes out in the sun, and is one of life's great delights to spot it or one of its companions - because there are more than one. Here you go, the heraldic animal of the academic bootcamp.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The wonder of libraries

They are the mainstay of research, the boring resource our students tend to forget about. Students keep asking me to help them find books and articles, I send them to the libraries, and they are always shocked. One student I worked particularly much with I met up in a library in order to show her how just sitting within their magical wireless aura boosts you access - at least if you are in a University Library in most of Europe with a Eduroam access, the way our students are.

In Copenhagen, I regularly use the large libraries in the city for my reading periods. Sitting in a common reading room focuses me wonderfully, my student discipline takes over and I write or read while I am there. The space is too public and too uncomfortable, but still just sufficiently safe and familiar that I stay alert, on track, but relaxed at the same time. The soft thread of careful feet trying not to disturb is endearing in it's civilised and polite concern for the work of others, and the scent of stacks of books carries the memory of more than 30 years of study and work. This is, as much as any place in the world, home.

And so it is with a familiar delight that I settle into the library at the University of Bologna. This is one of the oldest universities in the world, and it has the libraries to prove it. My main library is at the media and music department, where the tables for reading and working are scattered among the stacks. Saturday I was introduced to another library I am definitely going to be using - although I have to book a time to get the full use of it - the Renzo Renzi library and their wonderful videogame archive. Others have pointed to fantastic libraries - some so stunning that they have closed them to tourists, and I will have to prove my need in order to access them, such as the Archiginnasio library. As a visiting scholar I can probably get in there, but as a digital media scholar it may be a somewhat better use of my energy and connections to book time at the videogame archive.

What all these libraries have in common is a wonderful opportunity for access. They are, to me, the ultimate symbol of freedom and equality. They offer to all who are willing to respect the work and curiosity of others, the opportunity to learn, be entertained, discover, study, and enjoy, a vast body of literature, art, creativity and research, that covers centuries, and in some cases, millennia.

And this is the message of today. I am one month and 17 days, one article and one book chapter into my sabattical. It's spring in the world outside of these dusty rooms, and I walk to and from my beloved libraries under the beautiful porticos, sheltered by ancient, civilised laws protecting common rights and  public spaces. If anybody ever make me choose between the bicycle lanes of Copenhagen or the porticos of Bologna, I am going to have to struggle with which to vote for, but right now it is colonnades all the way - literally.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

The exhaustion within.

When people talk about academics, it's as if they speak of something belonging to another, walled-off world. To many, that is probably kind of true. If you don't make academe your career, you visit it, live in a very particular type of bubble where you cram your head with knowledge and experiences that change you more or less fundamentally, and then you move on to a community where the changes wrought on you are more random, less planned, less visible and less controlled. In their lives, being at a college or university is a limited, enclosed experience. "When I was a student," they may say. "At the university, these were the experiences..."

This sense of living a life apart from every other experience makes being an academic something romantic and nostalgic, even if you walk away from it with scorn. Perhaps it is even why so many walk away with scorn. In order to be able to distance yourself from a way of living which is so different, you need to start hating it a little, to convince yourself turning away was the right things. To explain why you didn't study more, or learn something else, you sneer at academic knowedge, and call it irrelevant. It might be to cover the secret desire for a Ph D and a lifetime of learning, why you left, why you failed. The reason isn't really important, the thing that is still with you is the sense of those who become academics as people who remain in the dream, who live a life apart, who do not touch reality. They are still in the ivory tower.

Sadly, there's not a lot of ivory in that tower. Most of the resources invested in Universities you have already seen. The auditoriums, the classrooms, the libraries - they are there for the students, like you were and like your children will be. The offices are crowded and the book collections you perhaps admire during supervision are collected over decades of work, one book at the time, not through some magic privilege. Imagine the money you spend on your favourite hobby (drinking and shopping counts). Then every time you spend 25€ on your hobby, you buy a book as well. That's where the books come from. Also, the students admiring those book collections will steal your books. I lose some every year to students who "forget" to give them back, believing that there must be some secret source of books where I can just go get a new one.

And that professor you just "borrowed" a book from isn't paid particularly well. It's not bad, being a tenured professor is in most places of the world one of those pretty safe middle-class jobs. But the realities of life are as real to scholars as to anybody else. So where, in all this, are the ivory towers?

Hidden in between the intense competition for work, the throat-cutting ambition that makes you mistrust old friends and new, the non-disclosure statements, the extreme work-hours and the nights of grading - somewhere in that world, there really ought to be a silver lining. The thing is - you need to be able to see it. It's not in the relaxed work hours, because any teaching scholar who also tries to research and publish will laugh until they cry at that idea. It's not in the respect and status - at the moment education and research is apparently the place where all governments agree they can spend less and cut more (and how ironic is that - the well-educated in power pulling the ladder up behind them, and the public cheering the decision, because teaching the young to question the status quo is ridiculous. After all this is currently the best of all possible worlds... OK, I will stop there, let's just say that you don't need to be a conspiracy nut to suspect that there is an agenda to the attacks on public education.)

It is something very small, a bit of wonder, a bit of desire, a bit of mystery. If you want to do well, over a long time, working long hours in a complex, often overwhelming job, you need to be intrinsically motivated. If not, the lack of funding, the constant care you need to offer students, the consistent self-examination and push for creative questions and new knowledge will break you. It happens. Scholars burn out, or decide to follow alternative tracks on a regular basis. They become administrators, advisors, consultants, or just pull back and into themselves, getting by with as little effort as possible.

And then you sit there, like I do right now, asking yourself - how did we get here? I was planning to write about the wonders of being a travelling scholar visiting the oldest University in Europe. About going from the shiny glass building of ITU to the solemn rows of colonnades connecting the buildings of the University of Bologna, but instead what I wrote about - what my fingers needed to work through - was academic over-work, loss, and exhaustion. But then there is that little bit of mystery.

It is what I am here to be reminded of. I am going away from everything that has made me feel like I have been mentally scraped clean, to rediscover the why of being a scholar. And I have come here, to the oldest well of knowledge I could reach, to recover. One month and three days in. Tomorrow I start writing a book. Today I eat "melanzane", read a new language, and walk the endless colonnades.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Sabbatical, day 14. Or 10 if we count working days.

I am going to give up counting working days vs just dates. It will get too tricky. I will however talk about where my mind goes in this period, because that's what a sabbatical is all about. I am doing this is order to let my mind go somewhere different.

First, it got all busy finishing an article on asynchronous play. Then, muddling around in that pit and fiddling with my NintendoDS, I realised that we are in the age of asynchronicity. We think we are talking about Instant communication, because it is so easily available to us. We can, if we want, be in immediate dialogue all over the planet, but we rarely use that. Instead we permit delays, from micro-delays of seconds (do I respond to that text? Do I really want to like that picture?) to delays of hours, days, months.

These delays can be used in different manners. We use them to think. What do I really mean, what might this response lead to, how is this interpreted? This is the rational use of the delays. But we live in a time of emotion, and the question is - what can these delays do to emotion?

Emotion in itself is interesting. The last decades have been spent going away from rationalism towards emotionalism. We are at a point in history where it is more important to feel right than to be right. If this sounds like I am on the side of the edgelords yelling "be rational" at the top of their all caps keystroke voices, then trust me, the self-righteous anger of the internet rationalists is no less emotional than the outraged middle-aged woman ranting about being downgraded on their flight.

What it looks like those pauses is being used for is to up the ante - to make it harder on those around us. It hardens the resolve of the persons in the conversation, adding support for their feelings, rather than allow for a cooling down period to let saner minds prevail. The delayed mind isn't necessarily saner, it is, if anything, more set in its ways.

Of course, I am not sure if this is true. Immediacy is clearly part of the emotional response, and time to think means time to chicken out. However, time to think also means time to justify, place blame, and confirm bias.

(This is as far as I got the day I wrote this. The rest is from much later. So much for frequent bloggposts.)

Another direction is followed by Norwegian Broadcasting is currently doing an intresting experiment though. Their tech-blog NRK beta has designed a little questionnaire of three questions which need to be answered correctly in order to be allowed to comment. The questions are taken from the article, and ensure that people have some understanding of it rather than just commenting based on the headline or even other comments. An important part of their experiment is to provide a "cooling off" period, to avoid a response in immediate affect.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Sabbatical, day 3

This year I am experiencing one of those periods which make others so intensely envy scholars. I have almost a year away from what most people recognize as "work" - I am not teaching and not doing administration, two of the largest and most immediate tasks of a contemporary academic. However, at ITU we are supposed to do as much research as teaching, and more teaching and research than administration, so when I, like so many other academics, ignore research or do it on our spare time, we are actually ignoring our jobs - no matter if the jokes very often are on us when we try to create some room in our calendars.
The norwegian-language link states that the use of time has not changed in 12 years.
Which leads me to this sabbatical. Much as I am looking forwards to this year, and it will take me to exotic and wonderful places, it will be a year of intense work. To give you an idea about what kind of work a sabbatical may contain, here's my schedule for this year:

February: finishing an article for an anthology, sending one panel proposal, one paper and one extended abstract off to conference. Finishing one exam.
March, April, May: writing 4 chapters for a book. Also: two exams, one abstract for a conference, organizing one seminar, possibly going to one more conference, and making a camera-ready paper out of the work in February, if it's accepted.
June: Either writing a 70 page research proposal, or a 40 page research proposal.
July: Just kidding about the proposals. If I am doing the 70 page one, this month will not be the vacation month it is supposed to be, but instead one conference, and more work on that proposal. No way I can do that in just one month.
August: Two articles, because I really need to write out some of the stuff that has been accumulating on my to-do list.
September: Finishing one of the two proposals, and editing a special issue for a journal.
October, November: Finishing the book, and all other academic work I want to have published.
December: Rounding up, and starting to plan for the spring term, when I am back.

Looking at this, I want to go back to bed. If I manage to keep my own schedule successfully, 2018 is going to be a record production year (because none of this will actually be published in 2017), and if I just manage to do half of this, I'll still be producing more than I have in years.

Looking at this, I am sitting here with a huge grin. This is why I am a scholar. I now have a chance to do the work I am already doing in week-ends and evenings, all day and without interruptions. For this one year, I am at the far right in the figure above, while I am also in the middle figure, just with an even slimmer "teaching" part. The more than 100% research is pretty much true though.

And that is day three obligatory to-do list. Day one I went out and did something totally different, because the day before I had submitted another research proposal and my arms were hurting too much to touch a keyboard. Day two I cleaned my office of six months of intense teaching/exams/proposal writing stacked to about 130%. All in all, productive so far. Just 300+ days to go.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Unflattening privilege

I am currently reading Nick Sousanis beautiful book Unflattening, and while I am not done (the assumption that it goes beyond words really bugs me, and I will soon throw some Roland Barthes on the table next to it and write a review), I think it illustrates certain concepts beautifully. A main theme for the book is the importance of shifting your point of view, having new experiences and gaining the habit of variety.

At a very different point, redditor republicannarnia posted a link to a google document about the connection male privilege/white privilege. This is a nice composition about how a young woman realized that in order to understand her own white privilege, she needed to use lessons from feminism.

Both these points reflect the strategies of research promoted by the cultural studies tradition, called methods triangulation or multiplicity. The point there is that to understand what happens in society, you need to look at it from more than one perspective. You have to be willing to move your point of view.

What Sousanis offers which is interesting though, is a connection between specialisation and limited viewpoints. I think he may be on to something. We have tended to assume that the cause of fear of academia is caused by lack of education. However, when we find people with Ph Ds in physics systematically following and bashing pretty self-evident gender research material, it's clearly not more education that is the problem. Instead, I suspect that the problem is the endless turf wars of specialization, and the fear that comes with shifting your point of view. When we have invested 20 years of education in order to reach the point we are at, and somebody tells us we STILL don't get everything right, that is pretty terrifying. After all, each of us are balancing on the sharp edge of highly specialized knowledge, and it may feel like taking a step to the side in order to get a different perspective may just push us off.

I still don't have a solution. But I am spending what time I have between application writing these days thinking about ways to use methodologies to shift my perspective and unflatten what I am looking at. In between I read Unflattening slowly, allowing myself to be both annoyed and delighted, savouring both points of view.